Mediate to help your neighbors

10/15/2015

For many years, a mediation board in West Marin has helped neighbors resolve disputes by listening to each other, using respectful language and developing an agreement that seems fair to both parties. Mediators are trained to be friendly, non-judgmental and impartial.

 The Community Mediation Board of West Marin was born in 1996, after the Bolinas mediation board disbanded following the death of one of its founders. A group of people from all the towns of West Marin rallied together to plan a new mediation board that would be active throughout the area.

 Mediators from similar boards in San Francisco and local experts—including Bolinas resident Hilary Winslow, who is now a judge—trained us on two consecutive weekends. A second training took place in 1997. In those two years, about 60 people completed the course, including members of the Spanish-speaking community. The oldest trainee was in his 80s, and the youngest was 15.  

During mediation, a group of two to four mediators help the disputing parties listen to each other and repeat the gist of what the opposing party says, so that each person feels their point of view is completely heard. Being heard and feeling understood can be surprisingly effective in moving toward a resolution of the problem.

Our mediation board has worked on many diverse cases. We have mediated disputes between neighbors on issues from barking dogs to overhanging tree limbs, from unpaid debts to divisions of property, from landlord tenant disputes to problems on nonprofit boards of directors. We devote about three hours to each session, and if a resolution is not achieved another session is planned. The board facilitates a resolution in about 90 percent of our cases; sometimes miracles happen, though in a small portion of cases a resolution eludes us. But without mediation, some simmering disputes would never end, or might involve a much more adversarial procedure with expensive lawyers. Community mediation is free of charge and completely confidential.

For many years, trained parents taught students from kindergarten through middle school at the schools of West Marin how to resolve conflicts with techniques similar to those used in a mediation; they helped young people come up with their own resolutions. The parents, who wore special identifying scarves, worked during recess. Although this is no longer happening, teachers often teach conflict resolution techniques too.  

When the mediation board first got underway, enthusiasm abounded; the training helped us find new ways to understand ourselves and to get along with our families and friends. But now the board has just eight mediators. We need more trained people and new ideas for developing our outreach. In a recent meeting we decided to contact people who were previously trained to see if they would rejoin. We are also thinking of raising funds for a new 40-hour training session. 

Here are two important concepts in mediation. First, resolution of a dispute is more likely when a person feels that he or she has been heard and understood by the other side. Mediators show the two parties how to repeat the gist of what has been said to achieve this aim. Also, the parties are coached to use respectful language—how to say what you mean without being mean. But without a sizeable group of trained mediators to facilitate these agreements, we will lose a valuable resource. Disagreements, rather than being resolved with the help of others in our community, may fester or end up in the costly court system. 

 

Sadja Greenwood, a Bolinas resident, is a member of the Community Mediation Board of West Marin. If you are interested in becoming a mediator, contact Sadja at sadja37@gmail.com and include your phone number. Trainees must pledge to be active in the mediation board for a number of years.